25 April, 2002

Pomp and glitter as Malaysia's king takes office

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia installed Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail as its 12th king on Thursday at a glittering ceremony harking back to feudal times in a country in the throes of modernisation.
Watched by Malaysia's political and royal elite, Syed Sirajuddin took up and kissed the golden keris panjang diraja, the royal dagger only he may touch, one of many symbolic privileges reserved for a class long-shorn of anything but symbolic power.
Strains of traditional oboes and a solemn drum beat punctuated proceedings at Istana Negara, the royal palace and home to the king and queen for their five years in office under Malaysia's system of rotating its monarchy.
"I will hereby rule Malaysia in a fair manner, in accordance with the country's law and constitution, uphold at all times the religion of Islam and stand firm for a just government and peaceful country," the new king said in his oath of office.
Cries of "Long live the King!" punctuated the restrained formality of the ceremony.
The new king, who is 58, is a former soldier described by Malaysian newspapers as a keen sportsman and avid supporter of English Premier League soccer side Tottenham Hotspur.
His role is largely ceremonial, although he is nominal head of the armed forces and all laws and the appointment of every cabinet minister require his assent.
CURBS TO ROYAL POWER
The new monarch, who attended Britain's army officer training school at Sandhurst, succeeds the late king Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz, who died in office late last year.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad quickly pushed through major curbs to royal powers after he took office in 1981, watering down a role enshrined in a constitution drawn up for independence from Britain in 1957.
Malay leaders say the position of King, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has proved to be one of the strong cohesive forces in the multi-racial, multi-religious nation.
Politically dominant Malays make up just over half of Malaysia's 23 million people. While the monarchy remains well-loved by rural Malays, it sits less well with fast-growing urban classes.
Local political analysts characterise Malay society today as imbued with feudalism but they say that religious teachers or ulamas now wield the influence that once lay with the country's nine sultans.